Tonight, Bray Armes will step onto the dirt at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, accomplishing a goal seemingly far from his grasp a few years ago.
That’s when he was in the midst of a five-year hiatus from steer wrestling, taking care of his wife and two children and his farm in Gruver. He was buying time and saving money before he made another run at the professional rodeo circuit and being one of the world’s best steer wrestlers.
After improbable back-to-back top finishes in his final two chances, Armes, 31, will aim to make the biggest payday of his career in Las Vegas, a payoff long overdue after years of waiting for the right time to make his run.
“We’ve seen a lot of people not take that road and they just keep going until they lose everything,” Neelley Armes, Bray’s wife, said. “And they struggle and it’s been a blessing for us to be able to do this and still be financially stable and see him accomplish his dream.”
Neelley’s father is Mike Riley, who owns a lightning protection business, a manufacturing business and a construction business in Denton County. Riley is the grandson of Doc Pitner, who along with a group of men, helped build the rodeo arena currently at the North Texas State Fairgrounds.
According to the obituary of Pitner’s wife, Marjorie Pitner, Doc’s family had lived in the Denton area since about the 1830s and was active in the expanding community.
And now, Pitner’s great-grandson-in-law has produced one of the most compelling narratives at the 2012 NFR.
Armes has earned a spot in Las Vegas because of his steer wrestling abilities. Steer wrestling is when a rider shoots out of a gate on his horse, jumps sideways off his horse and attempts to wrestle a steer to its back and a standstill by grabbing its horns.
Rodeo cowboys are allowed 70 events to earn money and land in the top 15 of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s money list.
Over the last five years, Armes put his dreams on hold to help raise his 5-year-old daughter, Breely, and his almost 4-year old son, Drake. He was primarily a wheat farmer in Gruver, which is essentially a town disguised as a rather large plot of land in the Panhandle near the Texas-Oklahoma border.
He last had a pro rodeo card in 2007, and even then he hardly competed following his marriage and Breely’s birth soon afterward.
“I don’t think he ever committed to actually quitting, but I think he entertained thoughts of it and he just rose above it,” Neelley Armes said. “I think deep down, he just knew he was going to return to it.”
Neelley said the family struggled financially at times during the stretch, prolonging Bray’s return to the arena.
“He’s real athletic,” Riley said. “I think he knew he had the talent to do it. But if you don’t have the money and the financial backing to spend on the trucks, trailers and diesel and everything like that, you can’t do it.”
Bray Armes made his professional return this year and moved all the way up near the top of the rankings as the end of the PRCA season approached.
The Gruver native and soon-to-be Denton County resident knew he needed two wins in his final two events of the year. He won first in Albuquerque, setting up the final qualifying event of the year at September’s American Royal Rodeo in Kansas City, Mo.
Armes started throwing down cattle when he was a senior in high school. The first time he tried to bring a steer to the ground, he jumped from his horse and his feet trailed behind him, leaving Armes hanging to the steer and slowing it as his feet dragged along the dirt until the steer came to a stop.
He’s got scars on the stomach of his large 6-foot-3, 245-pound frame from horns scraping him over the years.
The proper way to steer wrestle (which is also referred to as “bulldogging”) is to jump off your horse with the feet out in front, Armes said.
On that last day in Kansas City, Armes was riding Skip, the horse of his traveling partner, Dean Gorsuch. “Sirius” by the Alan Parsons Project played throughout the arena, the same song the NBA’s Chicago Bulls came out to during the days of Michael Jordan during the 1990s.
Neelley Armes, who went to Tarleton State on a rodeo scholarship after graduating from Denton High School in 2001, was on the opposite side of the arena with their son, Drake, who was preparing to ride sheep out into the arena after Bray’s event.
Skip restlessly moved behind the gate, adding to the suspense. Then the gate door swung open. Bray Armes jumped from his horse and unlike his first-ever attempt 13 years ago, his feet landed in front of him. He wrestled the steer on its back in 3.6 seconds, tying Armes for first place and earning him $2,326. He earned the 15th and final NFR berth by a mere $55 over Jason Miller, the 2007 world champion, totaling $45,852 for the season.
“I made a great run, and I was so full of emotion,” Armes said. “It was a great rush during the actual event. When you make a good run, it’s a feeling of excitement and being proud and everything else. It’s a great feeling. It’s hard to explain in words I guess.”
Armes got up from the dirt, looked up and fiercely smacked his hands together as he walked back to the stable while his time was announced in the arena, with his friends and his family in the stands and his wife on the opposite end of the building.
“I didn’t even hear a time,” Neelley Armes said. “I just saw how fast he was. The whole place just erupted, and I was just jumping up and down. I’m not one to really scream and make a scene very much, but the emotion got the best of me on that one. I nearly jumped into the arena.”
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